Premature Recoupment of Medicare or Medicaid Funds Can Feel Like Getting Mauled by Dodgeballs: But Is It Constitutional?
State and federal governments contract with many private vendors to manage Medicare and Medicaid. And regulatory audits are fair game for all these contracted vendors and, even more – the government also contracts with private companies that are specifically hired to audit health care providers. Not even counting the contracted vendors that manage Medicaid or Medicare (the companies to which you bill and get paid), we have Recovery Act Contractors (RAC), Zone Program Integrity Contractors (ZPICs), Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs), and Comprehensive Error Rate Testing (CERT) auditors. See blog for explanation. ZPICs, RACs, and MACs conduct pre-payment audits. ZPICs, RACs, MACs, and CERTs conduct post-payment audits.
It can seem that audits can hit you from every side.
“Remember the 5 D’s of dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.”
Remember the 5 A’s of audits: Appeal, argue, apply, attest, and appeal.”
Medicare providers can contest payment denials (whether pre-payment or post-payment) through a five-level appeal process. See blog.
On the other hand, Medicaid provider appeals vary depending on which state law applies. For example, in NC, the general process is an informal reconsideration review (which has .008% because, essentially you are appealing to the very entity that decided you owed an overpayment), then you file a Petition for Contested Case at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). Your likelihood of success greatly increases at the OAH level because these hearings are conducted by an impartial judge. Unlike in New Mexico, where the administrative law judges are hired by Human Services Department, which is the agency that decided you owe an overpayment. In NM, your chance of success increases greatly on judicial review.
In Tx, providers may use three methods to appeal Medicaid fee-for-service and carve-out service claims to Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership (TMHP): electronic, Automated Inquiry System (AIS), or paper within 120 days.
In Il, you have 60-days to identify the total amount of all undisputed and disputed audit
overpayment. You must report, explain and repay any overpayment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1320a-7k(d) and Illinois Public Aid Code 305 ILCS 5/12-4.25(L). The OIG will forward the appeal request pertaining to all disputed audit overpayments to the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General for resolution. The provider will have the opportunity to appeal the Final Audit Determination, pursuant to the hearing process established by 89 Illinois Adm. Code, Sections 104 and 140.1 et. seq.
You get the point.”Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody!” – White Goodman
Recoupment During Appeals
Regardless whether you are appealing a Medicare or Medicaid alleged overpayment, the appeals process takes time. Years in some circumstances. While the time gently passes during the appeal process, can the government or one of its minions recoup funds while your appeal is pending?
The answer is: It depends.
Before I explain, I hear my soapbox calling, so I will jump right on it. It is my legal opinion (and I am usually right) that recoupment prior to the appeal process is complete is a violation of due process. People are always shocked how many laws and regulations, both on the federal and state level, are unconstitutional. People think, well, that’s the law…it must be legal. Incorrect. Because something is allowed or not allowed by law does not mean the law is constitutional. If Congress passed a law that made it illegal to travel between states via car, that would be unconstitutional. In instances that the government is allowed to recoup Medicaid/care prior to the appeal is complete, in my (educated) opinion. However, until a provider will fund a lawsuit to strike these allowances, the rules are what they are. Soapbox – off.
Going back to whether recoupment may occur before your appeal is complete…
For Medicare audit appeals, there can be no recoupment at levels one and two. After level two, however, the dodgeballs can fly, according to the regulations. Remember, the time between levels two and three can be 3 – 5 years, maybe longer. See blog. There are legal options for a Medicare provider to stop recoupments during the 3rd through 5th levels of appeal and many are successful. But according to the black letter of the law, Medicare reimbursements can be recouped during the appeal process.
Medicaid recoupment prior to the appeal process varies depending on the state. Recoupment is not allowed in NC while the appeal process is ongoing. Even if you reside in a state that allows recoupment while the appeal process is ongoing – that does not mean that the recoupment is legal and constitutional. You do have legal rights! You do not need to be the last kid in the middle of a dodgeball game.
Don’t be this guy:
What if you had to appeal traffic citations through the police officer who pulled you over before you could defend yourself before an impartial judge? That would be silly and a waste of time. I could not fathom a time in which the officer would overturn his/her own decision.
“No, officer, I know you claim that I was speeding, but the speed limit on Hwy 1 had just increased to 65. You were wrong when you said the speed limit was 55.”
“Good catch, citizen. You’re right; I’m wrong. Let’s just rip up this speeding ticket.”
Not going to happen.
The same is true when it comes to decisions by the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS) to sanction or penalize a Medicaid provider based on alleged provider abuse (otherwise known as documentation errors). If DHHS determines that you owe $800,000 because your service notes are noncompliant, I am willing to bet that, upon its own reconsideration, the decision will be upheld. Asking for reconsideration review from the very same entity that decided the sanction or penalty is akin to doing something over and over and expecting different results (definition of insanity?).
But – are informal reconsideration reviews required by law to fight an adverse decision before you may appear before an administrative law judge?
The reason that you should care whether the reconsideration reviews are required by law is because the process is time consuming, and, often, the adverse determination is in effect during the process. If you hire an attorney, it is an expensive process, but one that you will not (likely) win. Generally, I am adverse to spending time and money on something that will yield nothing.
Before delving into whether reconsideration reviews are required by law, here is my caveat: This issue has not been decided by our courts. In fact, our administrative court has rendered conflicting decisions. I believe that my interpretation of the laws is correct (obviously), but until the issue is resolved legally, cover your donkey (CYA), listen to your attorney, and act conservatively.
Different laws relate to whether the adverse decision is rendered by the DHHS or whether the adverse decision is rendered by a managed care organization (MCO). Thus, I will divide this blog into two sections: (1) reconsiderations to DHHS; and (2) reconsiderations to an MCO.
Appealing DHHS Adverse Determinations
When you receive an adverse decision from DHHS, you will know that it is from DHHS because it will be on DHHS letterhead (master of the obvious).
10A NCAC 22F .0402 states that “(a) Upon notification of a tentative decision the provider will be offered, in writing, by certified mail, the opportunity for a reconsideration of the tentative decision and the reasons therefor. (b) The provider will be instructed to submit to the Division in writing his request for a Reconsideration Review within fifteen working days from the date of receipt of the notice. Failure to request a Reconsideration Review in the specified time shall result in the implementation of the tentative decision as the Division’s final decision.”
As seen above, our administrative code recommends that a Medicaid provider undergo the informal reconsideration review process through DHHS to defend a sanction or penalty before presenting before an impartial judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). I will tell you, having gone through hundreds upon hundreds of reconsideration reviews, DHHS does not overturn itself. The Hearing Officers know who pay their salaries (DHHS). The reconsideration review ends up being a waste of time and money for the provider, who must jump through the “reconsideration review hoop” prior to filing a petition for contested case.
Historically, attorneys recommend that provider undergo the reconsideration review for fear that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at OAH would dismiss the case based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. But upon a plain reading of 10A NCAC 22F .0402, is it really required? Look at the language again. “Will be offered” and “the opportunity for.” And what is the penalty for not requesting a reconsideration review? That the tentative decision becomes final – so you can petition to OAH the final decision.
My interpretation of 10A NCAC 22F .0402 is that the informal reconsideration review is an option, not a requirement.
Now, N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 states that “[i]t is the policy of this State that any dispute between an agency and another person that involves the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, including licensing or the levy of a monetary penalty, should be settled through informal procedures. In trying to reach a settlement through informal procedures, the agency may not conduct a proceeding at which sworn testimony is taken and witnesses may be cross-examined. If the agency and the other person do not agree to a resolution of the dispute through informal procedures, either the agency or the person may commence an administrative proceeding to determine the person’s rights, duties, or privileges, at which time the dispute becomes a “contested case.””
It is clear that our State’s policy is that a person who has a grievance against an agency; i.e., DHHS, attempts informal resolution prior to filing an appeal at OAH. Notice that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 is applicable to any dispute between “an agency and another person.” “Agency” is defined as “an agency or an officer in the executive branch of the government of this State and includes the Council of State, the Governor’s Office, a board, a commission, a department, a division, a council, and any other unit of government in the executive branch. A local unit of government is not an agency.”
Clearly, DHHS is an “agency,” as defined. But an MCO is not a department; or a board; or a commission; or a division; or a unit of government in the executive branch; or a council. Since the policy of exhausting administrative remedies applies to DHHS, are you required to undergo an MCO’s reconsideration review process?
Appealing an MCO Adverse Determination
When you receive an adverse decision from an MCO, you will know that it is from an MCO because it will be on the MCO’s letterhead (master of the obvious).
There is a reason that I am emphasizing the letterhead. It is because DHHS contracts with a number of vendors. For example, DHHS contracts with Public Consulting Group (PCG), The Carolina Center for Medical Excellence (CCME), HMS, Liberty, etc. You could get a letter from any one of DHHS’ contracted entities – a letter on their letterhead. For example, you could receive a Tentative Notice of Overpayment on PCG letterhead. In that case, PCG is acting on behalf of DHHS. So the informal reconsideration rules would be the same. For MCOs, on the other hand, we obtained a Waiver from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to “waive” certain rules and to create the MCOs. Different regulations apply to MCOs than DHHS. In fact, there is an argument that N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to the MCOs because the MCOs are not an “agency.” Confusing, right? I call that job security.
Are you required to undergo the MCO’s internal reconsideration review process prior to filing a petition for contested case at OAH?
Your contract with the MCO certainly states that you must appeal through the MCO’s internal process. The MCO contracts with providers have language in them like this:
Dispute Resolution and Appeals: “The CONTRACTOR may file a complaint and/or appeals as outlined in the LME/PIHP Provider Manual promulgated by LME/PIHP pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3 and as provided by N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C.”
I find numerous, fatal flaws in the above section. Whoever drafted this section of the contract evidently had never read N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, which plainly states in subsection (b) “This section does not apply to LME/MCOs.” Also, the LME/PIHP does not have the legal authority to promulgate – that is a rule-making procedure for State agencies, such as DHHS. The third fatal flaw in the above section is that the LME/MCO Provider Manual is not promulgated and certainly was not promulgated not pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. 122C-151.3, does not apply to LME/MCOs.
Just because it is written, does not make it right.
If N.C. Gen. Stat. 150B-22 does not apply to MCOs, because MCOs are not an agency, then the State policy of attempting to resolve disputes through informal methods before going to OAH does not apply.
There is no other statute or rule that requires a provider to exhaust an MCO’s internal review process prior to filing a petition for contested case.
What does that mean IN ENGLISH??
What it means is that the MCOs contract and provider manual that create an informal one or two-step reconsideration process is not required by law or rule. You do not have to waste your time and money arguing to the MCO that it should overturn its own decision, even though the reconsideration review process may be outlined in the provider manual or your procurement contract.
OAH has agreed…and disagreed.
In Person-Centered Partnerships, Inc. v. NC DHHS and MeckLINK, No. 13 DHR 18655, the court found that “[n]either the contractual provisions in Article II, Section 5.b of the Medicaid Contract nor MeckLINK’s “Procedures for implementation of policy # P0-09 Local Reconsideration Policy” states that reconsideration review is mandatory and a prerequisite to filing a contested case.”
In another case, OAH has held that, “[c]ontract provisions cannot override or negate the protections provided under North Carolina law, specifically the appeal rights set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 108C. Giesel, Corbin on Contracts § 88.7, at 595 (2011) (When the law confers upon an individual a right, privilege, or defense, the assumption is that the right, privilege or defense is conferred because it is in the public interest. Thus, in many cases, it is contrary to the public interest to permit the holder of the right, privilege, or defense to waive or to bargain it away. In these situations, the attempted waiver or bargain is unenforceable.”)” Essential Supportive Services, LLC v. DHHS and its Agent Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, No. 13 DHR 20386 (NCOAH) (quoting Yelverton’s Enrichment Services, Inc., v. PBH, as legally authorized contractor of and agent for N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 13-CVS-11337, (7 March 2014)).
However, most recently, OAH ruled in the opposite way. A provider was terminated from an MCO’s catchment area, and we immediately filed a preliminary injunction to cease the termination. As you can see from the above-mentioned cases, OAH had not considered the reconsideration review mandatory. But, this time, the Judge found that the “contractual provision in [the MCO’s] contract with Petitioner, which provides for a local reconsideration review, is a valid and binding provision within the contract.”
So, again, the law is as clear as two and two adding up to five.
For now, when you are disputing an adverse determination by an MCO requesting a reconsideration review before going to OAH is a good CYA.
Going back to the traffic example at the beginning of the blog, my husband was pulled for speeding a few weeks ago. I was surprised because, generally, he does not speed. He is a usually conscientious and careful driver. When the officer came to his window, he was genuinely confused as to the reason for the stop. In his mind, he was driving 73 mph, only 3 miles over the speed limit. In fact, he had the car on cruise control. Turns out he confused the sign for HWY 70, as a speed limit sign. The speed limit was actually 55 mph.
We did not appeal the decision.